1. Archive

They defied so we'd have the right to be defiant

Why did we write the Declaration of Independence in the first place?

The main author of the thing, Thomas Jefferson, answered that question in the words of the Declaration itself. The document was necessary, he said, to show "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind."

In other words, the Framers figured they owed an explanation to the rest of the world.

Part of that calculation was based in practical politics. The colonists needed to build as strong a case as possible. They wanted to forestall too much sympathy for the British crown. (Remember, there were a lot of kings in the world back then.)

The colonists also wanted to persuade potential supporters, such as our friends the French, to treat the United States as a legitimate nation. Otherwise, the British might have been able to keep everybody out by calling the Revolution just an "internal matter."

(Our friends the French, I said. That's right. French guys. You and I would not be sitting here in a free country today, or at least not in this particular free country, if it hadn't been for the help of a bunch of French guys.)

So anyhoo, Jefferson set out to write an airtight case. He was a lawyer, remember. I know we are down on lawyers these days, but Jefferson did a great job. The Declaration is an irrefutable indictment of King George III.

I say "irrefutable," but did you know that the English did try to refute it? A London barrister named John Lind wrote a document, much circulated at the time, titled "An Answer to the Declaration of the American Congress."

Lind bitterly mocked the high-minded language of the Declaration:

If the right of enjoying life be unalienable, whence came their invasion of his Majesty's province of Canada? Whence the unprovoked destruction of so many lives of the inhabitants of that province? . . . Or would they have it believed, that there is in their selves some superior sanctity, some peculiar privilege, by which those things are lawful to them, which are unlawful to all the world besides?

Lind gamely tried to rebut the allegations made against the king in the Declaration. But it took him more than 100 pages, with an effort not quite as sparse and powerful as Jefferson's inspiring prose, and history has largely forgotten his work.

Ever since then, each year on this day, we Americans celebrate our right to overthrow the government.

It sounds funny to put it that way, doesn't it? But that's exactly what the Declaration and this holiday stands for:

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government . . .

It is a dangerous, radical sentiment.

Don't push us around.

Don't tread on me.

There is nothing neat and polite about the birth of the United States. Men like Sam Adams, who today would be called terrorists, wore disguises under cover of night and blew things up and destroyed property. They paved the way for the more genteel lawyers to gather in Philadelphia and debate what style of penmanship to use.

The Englishman Lind put his finger on a contradiction that lay then, and lies now, at the heart of America. The Declaration proclaimed that infringement of our "unalienable rights" justifies a new government. But the creation of any government at all, by necessity, infringes on those rights. A literal reading of the Declaration requires humanity to be in a perpetual state of revolt.

So the spirit of this day is defiant, not compliant. It is skeptical, not credulous. It is proud, not submissive. It is loud, not meek. In my mind the Declaration takes precedence over the Constitution itself. It provided the necessary fire in which the cold steel of the Constitution was forged, even though legally speaking the Constitution is our supreme law today, and the Declaration has no binding legal status whatsoever.

If any person tells me I have to bow down to the government, or its symbols, or its policy, or that I am required to pay homage to any man or woman in it, I will tell them straight away where to go. That is the spirit of this day; do not be lulled into anything else.